1906 Letter to the San Francisco Health Department

By Schmachtenberg, Kristin | Social Education, April 2006 | Go to article overview

1906 Letter to the San Francisco Health Department


Schmachtenberg, Kristin, Social Education


On Wednesday, April 18, 1906, an earthquake, measuring 7.8 on the Richter magnitude scale and lasting 48 seconds, erupted along the San Andreas fault with a flash point originating in the San Francisco Bay area. (1) The magnitude of the earthquake was so great that it originally could not be measured on the contemporary Richter scale gauge. The force of the earthquake tore apart buildings and roads, causing water and gas mains to twist and break. The resulting effects of the quake ignited a series of fires throughout the city.

The three major San Francisco newspapers had to pool their resources in order to publish firsthand accounts from ground zero. Thus, the San Francisco Call-Chronicle-Examiner head lined the next day: "Earthquake and Fire: San Francisco in Ruins," and the front page article opened with, "Death and destruction have been the fate of San Francisco." (2) The early morning quake forever changed the lives of the 400,000 people living in San Francisco at the time, and left an estimated 250,000 homeless. (3) The combined damage of the earthquake and fires left little whole or intact in the city of San Francisco.

Despite heroic efforts by city firefighters, military personnel, and the public, the fires burned uncontrollably for three days, destroying more than 500 city blocks. News of the San Francisco earthquake and fire quickly spread to the national newspapers. The New York Times reported, "Over 500 Dead, $200,000,000 Lost in San Francisco Earthquake: Nearly Half the City is in Ruins and 50,000 are Homeless: Water Supply Fails and Dynamite is Used in Vain." (4) In addition, The Washington Post declared the event one of the "Greatest Disasters of History" long before exact numbers were even tallied. (5)

For the people of San Francisco, the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and fire included shock, panic, and confusion. With the general lack of control and growing numbers of displaced people, crowds began raiding and looting stores. As fear and uncertainty grew, Mayor Eugene Schmitz issued a bold edict, announcing that the U.S. Army and city police could take any measures necessary to keep and maintain order. Army soldiers were posted along San Francisco streets, and "maintained law and order, closed saloons, and evacuated residents." (6) Their very presence reassured the public of order in the midst of chaos.

City officials, inundated with requests for aid, quickly realized that they could not meet the immediate needs to feed, clothe, house, and monitor the refugee population, estimated to be more than half the residents of San Francisco. As a result, the army assumed significant control over the recovery process, most clearly witnessed by their operation of 21 official refugee camps within the city. Located in Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, Fort Mason, Harbor View (Marina District), and other city squares and parks, at their height, these camps housed 20,000 people--nearly 10 percent of the refugees. In the Presidio area alone, four camps housed 16,000 people, and were built and maintained in strict military fashion and order. (7)

In the camps and at commissary food stations, servicemen were responsible for the receipt and fair distribution of food, clothing, and other supplies. However, not all of the rations came directly from army supply sources. Awareness of the basic needs and desperate conditions of San Francisco inspired people across the country to send supplies and donations. (8)

On May 8, 1906, Dr. M. C. Hassler, the chief sanitary inspector of the camp at Fort Mason, sent a letter to James W. Ward, president of the Health Commission, specifically regarding rations delivered to the camp. The Health Commission was, and remains, an agency of the municipal government of San Francisco. It played an important role in providing health care for the city's homeless: requisitioning medical supplies, reporting on unsanitary conditions, authorizing remedial work, and compiling plans and making cost estimates for sanitation maintenance in San Francisco. …

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